Exploring the Music of Hackbridge Johnson

TOCC0456 - cover

JOHNSON: Aspens. Ziggurats. Two Elegies for Strings & Harp. Symphony No. 15, “Where the Wind is Born.” Valse Mérovingienne / Liepāja Symphony Orch.; Paul Mann, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0456

Somehow I missed the first two volumes in this series of music by David Hackbridge Johnson (b. 1963), but this one is clearly impressive. The first two pieces, described by the composer as “nature or landscape pieces,” are ethereal at times yet manage to escape the stigma of “ambient classical” music that so often dogs works like these nowadays. Johnson uses a largely tonal palette informed with modern chord positions, and moves his motivic material around with virtuosic ease. Swirling winds enter the picture, and there are soft but ominous-sounding background figures played by the brass. At the eight-minute mark, the music increases in volume as louder brass, with timpani, enter the picture. Ziggurats begins with soft, low basses playing a slow but ominous-sounding theme over which soft violin tremolos are heard before the slow, somewhat menacing theme enters and is developed. These are clearly well-written pieces, but they do contain a few moments of bombast. A cackling clarinet is heard very high up in its range as growling trombones and, yes, more timpani come in and the string figures slow down but become louder and edgier. These are, overall, interesting pieces that I doubt you’ll ever hear on your local classical insomnia-cure station.

Nor will you hear his Two Elegies for Strings & Harp despite their more tonal bias. This music, too, has some edgy chord positions that will upset those weaned on and acclimated only to pre-1900 Classical and Romantic scores. This work is a cousin of Benjamin Britten’s string pieces of the 1930s. The second of these includes a somewhat faster, louder and edgier passage that is quite interesting.

The opening of the Symphony No. 15, subtitled “Where the Wind is Born,” is also fairly slow, quiet, and edgy in its harmonic movement, but in this case I felt that the theme statement was dragged out a bit too much and said relatively little for the first four minutes. Finally, at 3:54, we get a change in tempo, feeling and theme as rapid, swirling, downward string passages suggest the wind. Judging from this piece, however, I felt that Hackbridge Johnson, though a clever composer, does not work that well in larger forms. Keeping his statements and development to 10-minute structures seems to be far more conducive to his expression than the larger form of the symphony, where he becomes repetitive and says nothing for long stretches of time. This first movement pretty much ends in the middle of nowhere. The second is all swirling strings, biting brass and menacing timpani, in a sense all predictable although cleverly strung together. Biting wind, brass and drum figures enter the picture at about 5:06, and again, it’s fairly effective but overwritten and somewhat predictable. I cut the symphony short because it again went on too long and said very little.

The last piece on this disc, Valse Mérovingienne, is a more interesting piece using interesting bitonal themes that move the harmony around to create strange moods. My mind flashed on a madwoman dancing by herself in the dark, thus I was not surprised to learn that this “is the only surviving material from a discarded ballet, Childeric’s Dream.” It’s a strong finish to a somewhat uneven collection of works. Interesting intermittently, and worth hearing except for the symphony.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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